31.1 The Mine

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The cage opened for the last time on Loading Station F, and crimson steam trickled in through the gate. It was not warm like the fog over Honaw. It was hot. Where it touched my skin I felt like I had been licked by a flame. I went to wipe the sweat off my forehead and almost cried out as my hand brushed the Flintstone Bandaid and a wave of pain rolled inside my skull. When I recovered enough to remember where I was, Billy and Ash were staring at me. Waiting.

For?

"Oh. Sorry." I pointed Colossus forward and its beam speared the back of a large machine standing a dozen feet from the cage.

"That's the driller my dad talked about," said Billy. He pointed up at the beams, where a shadowy half ring of LEDs hung from the ceiling. "And those are the lights. The ones with cords were run by electricity. The others used batteries. It doesn't matter now. They're all dead."

Ash wiped a gooey strand from her neck. "You don't say."

"Well." I pushed onto the track of the gate and parked over the crack between the cage and rock. Then I climbed down, taking care not to drop Colossus. The other flashlights were needles next to it, and I didn't want to be stuck with needles down here, poking away at the dark.

"Are you going to be okay?" said Ash. "Without Bitchmaster?"

"Better off without it." The ground was bumpy and uneven, and past the driller I had a feeling there'd be more fallen rocks lying around than the wheels could handle—assuming Bitchmaster could fit past the driller in the first place.

"You sure?" Ash was still in the cage with Billy. They looked like a couple of scared kids standing outside a cellar door.

"Why? Would you two like to ride in the chair instead?"

That jab got them moving. Billy came first and Ash second, her arms crossed. I might have thought she was cold if it wasn't so damn hot.

"You can trade me, though." I held up Colossus to her. "Lugging myself around will be hard enough."

She handed me her flashlight. I stuck it into my leather jacket with Billy's Zippo before scooting backwards across the ground. I had to move backwards to avoid having my legs fold under me like they had on Ash's staircase. The elevator vanished behind us. Next went the darkened LEDs and the beams on which they hung. It was true what Billy's father had said.

The beams were creaking.

We stopped to squeeze by the driller one by one, me second in line. The butt of my pants was soaked through. My skin felt sticky, feverish. Warm steel pressed in on one side, wet rock on the other, and my heart took on a lurching beat. Suddenly I could feel the earth all around me, not an abstraction or an idea, but a thing, an it. The weight was too much for my mind to handle. I bumped into Ash and bit down on a scream.

She stood with her back to me, Colossus aimed ahead of her.

The bear lay on its side, its enormous black bulk perspiring in the steam. I pinched my eyes shut and listened to the pounding in my skull, then I squinted one eye open at a time. It wasn't the bear. It was the safe. I knew that. I knew that. But my body didn't. My nerves twisted inside me like corkscrews. I clenched my left hand and the diamond ring (facing inward) dug painfully into my palm.

"Move," Billy grunted.

He walked by, his footsteps making more soft footsteps on the walls around him. Tiny stones and dust had sprinkled down onto the safe. He picked up one of the stones, staring off into the dark of the tunnel beyond, then he leaned over the dial and cocked his head. I heard him mumble a number. A minute passed. He took the knob. I wandered my flashlight over the Porta-Potty, which had managed somehow to stay upright through both the explosion and later the earthquake. When I flicked the beam further off, past the safe, the mouth of the tunnel swallowed it. Somewhere that direction was a caved-in passage that once led to a ladder down to the basement, over one mile underground, where Carl Rascoe and his crew had stumbled upon a nameless thing, a living, breathing, thinking, feeling creature that had lived within the world long before men walked its surface.

"Shit," Billy said.

"What?" said Ash.

"It's hard, that's what." He spun the dial a few times counterclockwise and set it back at zero. His hand was trembly. "Three tries, right? You get three tries before it locks you out for good. Don't you?"

"You're the one who should know." Ash was trembly, too. She looked like a bunch of trembles wrapped into one body and trying to pop loose.

Billy's fingers slipped. "Fuck, fuck."

"Two strikes."

"I know that's fucking two strikes. I can fucking count, can't I?"

Ash gave a one-sided shrug that said she had her doubts. Billy turned back to the safe. This time a few minutes went by. A fingernail itched at my brain. Half an hour down, half an hour back up. Down and up, down and up, and all the while the batteries draining in the radio, the music drawing to an end. And when the show was over, when Iron Maiden left the stage and the night went quiet once again, how long would it take for the schoolchildren to shuffle back from Ash's house to the clearing overhead?

Billy reached for the dial.

"Four left to 28 . . . three right to 35 . . ." His hand moved with aching slowness. ". . . two left to 59 . . . one right until—"

Click.

Billy pulled on the dial, lifting the heavy black door until there was a crack wide enough to wedge his fingers, then he heaved the door up and open.

The safe was empty, except for a lone white package.

He took the package out and let the door drop with a bang. The echoes carried through Level F, like smaller and smaller doors slamming shut. He turned his head to me. "Well, Joel. Are we done yet?"

In the silence came a sound.

And another.

And another.

Someone emerged from the tunnel on heavy, dragging feet.

____ ____

Author's Note:

Guess who?

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